WASHINGTON, D.C.—Not too many NASA engineers get to sit with the First Lady at the State of the Union address. But having an unusual haircut certainly doesn't hurt in getting you noticed, especially if you are the flight director for the Mars Curiosity mission. Bobak Ferdowsi, better known as Mohawk Guy, caught many people's attention, including that of Michelle Obama, when television cameras caught the 33-year-old in the control room as Curiosity made its spectacular landing last August 6, 2012.
His distinctive look and infectious enthusiasm has led him to reach out to the public to spread the word on the excitement of Martian exploration. At a briefing organized by the White House office of digital strategy on February 13, he revealed how he got into Mars research and the reason for his hair.
[An edited transcript follows.]
What inspired you to become involved in the exploration of other planets?
As a child, it was the kind of thing I dreamed of doing. I saw the 1997 Pathfinder mission. It was the first time I had really seen live pictures of Mars. There was something amazing about seeing the human effort involved, to have something sitting there on another planet, that made me want to do it.
How did you get on the Mars Curiosity team?
In school I wasn't sure what I wanted to do. I went down the path of physics and aerospace engineering. At the Jet Propulsion Lab [JPL], I was lucky that they put me on the Mars Curiosity project at the very start. But I still didn’t know what I would do on it.
I told my boss, hey, I really want to work on this stuff, but I don’t even know what I’m good at yet. So I took an apprenticeship approach. Over the course of a few years, I did mission planning, some requirements development, testing and operations. Along the way, without realizing it, I learned so much and learned a lot about myself. I learned I loved testing the rover. Trying to get one of these things to break is one of the best jobs I’ve ever had.
To name the rover, NASA conducted a contest. How do you think it turned out?
I thought the name, Curiosity, was a little cheesy at first. And now I absolutely love it. Curiosity is actually the perfect name. Here we are, and we’re using our own curiosity to explore the planet.
You have a full-time job operating the rover as flight director. How did you handle all the educational outreach?
It’s just a matter of a little time management. I love the outreach. I feel really fortunate for the opportunities to do more of it, like working with the Office of Science Technology Policy. When I give a tour of JPL, it's super exciting. It gives you energy to bring someone else into the picture and show them what you’re working on. And you realize, "yeah, this is amazing"; it’s not just a job. It helps motivate me and gets me pumped.
Concerning the Curiosity mission, what are you most looking forward to?
Until last week, it was the drillling into the Martian surface. The thing I'm really excited for now is that we’ve laid out the path we’re going to drive on and the places where we are gong to drill. We're seeing at least three or four different types of terrain there. I’m excited to analyze each of those terrains and get the story of Mars pieced together, because each of those terrains represents a different era and a different Martian environment. And we can get down to answering the question of whether Mars was habitable.
What are the odds of life on Mars?
I don't believe there's life on Mars today. I'm optimistic that maybe in the past there were some sort of simple-celled organisms.
What's the deal with your hair?
The hair became an ongoing tradition for me about five, six years ago, when we started doing these things called system tests. I was doing the software testing of the hardware.
Testing is kind of stressful. So with the system test coming up, I thought I'd do something fun. I decided I was young enough to have a Mohawk once in my life. And I also put an ST on my head for system test.
For launch, I went a little crazy. I dyed my hair so that the hawk went from gold to red, like a rocket flame. For landing, my boss sent an e-mail poll to the team asking what my hair should look like. Some of the options were pretty bad. One suggestion was a reverse Mohawk. Ultimately, the team came up with red, white and blue.
Any plans to change your Mohawk hairstyle?
I think I was 26 when I first started it. I like to change things up, as you can tell from the colors in my hair that are changing. I’m sure there’ll be a point when it’s gone. No one wants to see an old, gray-haired Mohawk guy.